Schools move away from valedictorian designations

Tipp, Springboro, Mason schools eliminating ‘valedictorian’ title

Mason High School’s decision to stop naming a valedictorian starting next year triggered national debate this weekend, but Mason is not the only southwest Ohio school going this route.

Tippecanoe and Springboro high schools decided not to honor a valedictorian for the first time this year, while Xenia and the DECA charter high school in Dayton have not named a valedictorian for several years.

RELATED: See all local valedictorians from the Class of 2018

News about Mason’s decision led to debate over whether the school was stifling competition and devaluing the idea of being the very best, or taking a good step to eliminate needless stress among its highest achievers.

Playing “the game”

Dave Taylor, assistant superintendent of the DECA charter schools, questioned whether having the highest GPA necessarily means a student is the very best. He said there’s often very little difference between the top few students’ achievements – with the distinction coming down to whether a student’s interests led them to take one particular weighted class or not.

“It gets divisive. It pits students against one another,” Taylor said. “Our aim is always to lift up all of our students. … It’s a game, and we don’t play it.”

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That “game” has different rules depending on your high school. Last spring, 57 high schools in the Dayton region reported their valedictorian and salutatorian information to the Dayton Daily News. About half named a single valedictorian and salutatorian based on GPA, including schools like Centerville and Springboro, which had several hundred graduates each.

Others named two of each (Fairborn) or had a three-way tie for valedictorian (Franklin). At Northmont, all students who earn straight-A’s throughout high school share the valedictorian title, leading to 22 valedictorians last year. Valley View had 16 valedictorians and Dixie High School had 14.

The Mason example

Mason, a huge, high-achieving high school that sends multiple students each year to elite universities, had annually named one valedictorian and salutatorian, with competition intense. Three years ago, 2016 valedictorian Alvin Zhang said in his graduation speech that he regretted all the hours he spent chasing grades and the valedictorian title and wished he had spent more time making friends and discovering life passions.

Mason school officials said they are making a change as part of a larger student mental-wellness effort, after a year-long study. Starting next year, Mason High School will honor students similar to the way many colleges do – with the designations cum laude (3.51 to 3.74 GPA), magna cum laude (3.75-3.99) and summa cum laude (4.00 and above, as high-level classes offer weights above 4.0).

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The news led to a testy exchange among posters on the district’s own Facebook page. Felicity Cook supported the move on mental health grounds, saying some students “are seriously hurting because they have 4.0s and their parents still expect more.”

Stacy Schnelle said the school should be ashamed for “taking away an award that takes hard work and dedication.” Keith Nagle said kids need to learn how to deal with the fact that they won’t always come in first place.

“As long as the college admission process is so ridiculously competitive, high academically achieving students will continue to work themselves to death,” Katie Rudy said. “I don’t think eliminating valedictorian will change that.”

Surveys of college admissions offices have shown less interest in class rank – how students compare against their in-school peers. But students have to remember that those colleges are still very interested in whether students took challenging courses and got good grades in them – which are the factors that class rank is built on.

Local schools changing

Starting this year, rather than name a valedictorian, Springboro will honor students who meet certain GPA and test score standards as “distinguished graduates,” similar to the term Xenia and Carlisle use. This first year, Springboro is honoring 19 students who have a GPA above 4.0 (because of weighted advanced classes), as well as a qualifying test score (30-plus on the ACT or 1400-plus on the SAT).

After a yearlong process with parent and student input, Tippecanoe High School is also using a Latin “cum laude” system like what Mason is moving to, except that it will be based on unweighted grades, so summa cum laude is 3.9 to 4.0. Principal Steve Verhoff agreed with Taylor that students previously could game the system, in Tipp’s case by taking extra College Credit Plus classes in the summer to boost GPAs.

RELATED: Student mental health a rising school concern

Verhoff said too many students were choosing or avoiding classes based on what it meant for their class rank, rather than pursuing their interests or trying new things. For example, some musically inclined students hesitated to take band class, since there is not an advanced (GPA-weighted) option.

“We want kids to run their own race — make course selections based on their interests and the best option for them,” Verhoff said. “But we didn’t want to place a number on a student simply because they took more College Credit Plus classes or Advanced Placement classes than others.”

Verhoff echoed Mason’s concerns about student mental health, saying Tipp got a lot of feedback about students facing pressures and stress to compete, at the same time that teen suicide rates are rising.

Verhoff said naysayers could call this a “give more kids a trophy” system, since the school will recognize more high achievers than just the elite few. But he said Tipp is still teaching kids perseverance and how to handle adversity in a world that requires people to compete in many ways.

“We’re teaching kids to be intrinsically motivated rather than extrinsic,” he said. “I think that’s very difficult to build, but that’s something this change is focusing on – trying to build that intrinsic motivation to want to be the best version of yourself … and not necessarily comparing themselves as much to others.”

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